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Monday, April 04, 2005

2005 Season Preview: Batting 

“Offense gets the glory but defense wins the game” goes one of the most tired clichés in sports. Naturally, the 2004 Phillies proved the aphorism correct: the ’04 team was a powerful force at the plate and awful at preventing the opposition from scoring runs. Not surprisingly, the Phillies finished with a paltry 86 wins and out of the playoff race. The team upgraded the pitching staff in the offseason, so the question is whether or not the Phillies offense can continue to supply the runs this team needs to win the NL East.

We’ll close out our Season Previews with a quick discussion of the Phillies prospects at the plate in 2005. First, here are some stats I use and their definitions:

GPA (Gross Productive Average): (1.8 * .OBP + .SLG) / 4 = .GPA. Invented by The Hardball Times Aaron Gleeman, GPA measures a players production by weighing his ability to get on base and hit with power. This is my preferred all-around stat.
ISO (Isolated Power): .SLG - .BA = .ISO. Measures a player’s raw power by subtracting singles from their slugging percentage.
RC (Runs Created): Measures how many runs a player “creates” for his team. The formula used by Bill James is fairly complex: look at p. 397-398 of the 2005 Bill James Handbook.
OBP (On-Base Percentage): How often a player gets on base. (H + BB + HBP) / (Plate Appearances)

Got it? Let’s start by showing the Phillies projected 2005 lineup and how those players are projected to do:

Games / OBP / SLG / HR / 2B
SS Rollins: 158 / .335 / .429 / 13 / 40
CF Lofton: 105 / .348 / .390 / 7 / 17
RF Abreu: 156 / .420 / .527 / 26 / 45
1B Thome: 137 / .399 / .566 / 39 / 26
LF Burrell: 151 / .354 / .470 / 29 / 31
3B Bell: 148 / .325 / .402 / 16 / 32
2B Utley: 155 / .333 / .478 / 24 / 36
C Lieberthal: 125 / .334 / .448 / 16 / 30
Pitchers

The sources of these projections is the 2005 Bill James Handbook. Here are the Phillies projected sabremetric stats:

Runs Created / GPA / ISO
SS Rollins: 94 / .258 / .153
CF Lofton: 51 / .254 / .117
RF Abreu: 131 / .321 / .222
1B Thome: 111 / .321 / .294
LF Burrell: 90 / .277 / .221
3B Bell: 74 / .247 / .145
2B Utley: 90 / .269 / .203
C Lieberthal: 71 / .262 / .169
Pitchers

The ’05 team returns about 95% intact from last year. Aside from Kenny Lofton there aren’t any important new faces, and most of the ’05 lineup is playing where they did last year. So let’s start with a few observations about the ’04 team:

The 2004 Phillies were an impressive offensive force, whether or not you thought that Citizens Bank Ballpark had a dramatic effect on the Phillies season. Citizen’s Bank doesn’t explain why the Phillies were fourth in the NL in home runs on the road, third in road OBP and third in road slugging percentage. This against teams that played at Citizens. This team was a monster at the plate. Check out how they ranked in GPA:

NL GPA Rank:
1. St. Louis: .270
2. San Francisco: .270
3. Colorado: .269
4. Philadelphia: .266
5. Atlanta: .263
6. Houston: .263
7. Chicago: .262
8. San Diego: .257
9. Los Angeles: .255
10. Cincinnati: .253
11. Florida: .250
12. New York: .245
13. Pittsburgh: .245
14. Milwaukee: .241
15. Montreal: .238
16. Arizona: .238
NL Average: .255

The Phillies ran ahead of the NL is pretty much every stat:

Phillies / NL Average / (Phillies + / -)
BA: .267 / .263 / (+.004)
OBP: .345 / .333 / (+.012)
ISO: .176 / .160 (+.016)
GPA: .266 / .255 / (+.011)
SLG: .443 / .423 / (+.020)
RISP: .257 / .257 / (.000)

(RISP: Runners in scoring position.) So the 2004 Phillies were a powerhouse, despite a so-so season from franchise hope Pat Burrell and a horrible year for Marlon Byrd, the team’s annointed leadoff threat. I don’t expect that to change much in 2005. The team is largely intact and probably a little stronger than last year. I’ll split the discussion into three parts: the team’s top of the order threats, the middle lineup and the bench and bottom together.

I. Leading Off

ss Jimmy Rollins
cf Kenny Lofton
2b / 3b Placido Polanco
cf Marlon Byrd (?)

The two biggest changes to the Phillies defensive / offensive alignments have been the team’s decision to make a change in its middle defense: centerfield and second base. Placido Polanco is out at second base and replaced by Chase Utley, the highly touted prospect will finally get his chance to be a full-time regular after playing about a third of the year in 2004. The conventional wisdom is that the Phillies are getting an upgrade offensively with Utley, but have to accept a defensive downgrade with Utley replacing Polanco in the field. This is probably wrong. Dave Punto’s Probablistic Model of Range (PMR) and Zone Rating (ZR) have made a convincing case that Utley might be as good or even better than Polanco defensively at second. Offensively Polanco and Utley are vastly different players, so comparing them is difficult. Here is a comparison of the two for 2004:

Utley: .308 OBP / .202 ISO / .250 GPA
Polanco: .345 OBP / .143 ISO / .260 GPA

Polanco hit well in the two hole for the Phillies doing what a player hitting at the top of the order should do: get on base and get into position to score runs. Utley is a different breed: he’ll eventually hit in the middle of the Phillies order, but for now he’ll hit sixth or seventh. Utley isn’t the on-base percentage threat Polanco is, but he’s a much more explosive bat (though to be fair to Polanco, he has a pretty good bat too). Here are their projected stats for 2005:

Polanco: .258 GPA / .132 ISO / 76 Runs Created (27 2b’s and 13 HR’s in 136 Games)
Utley: .269 GPA / .203 ISO / 90 Runs Created (36 2b’s and 24 HR’s in 155 Games)

Polanco will get some playing time at third base this season, as well as at second base filling in when Utley has to take a day or two off. Unfortunately for him, his customary spot hitting second has been taken by Kenny Lofton, so he’ll have to get used to hitting seventh or eighth in the lineup unless Lofton is out.

Another big question mark for the Phillies is new centerfielder Kenny Lofton. Marlon Byrd disappointed us all by following his strong performance in 2003 by having an awful 2004 season: .287 OBP / .093 ISO / .209 GPA, just 35 Runs Created in 106 games. He didn’t get on base, he didn’t hit for power and he wasn’t a threat at the top of the order at all. If there is any solace for Phillies fans it is that Byrd will almost certainly perform better in 2005. (Hard to fathom that he can’t.) Here is what the Bill James Handbook projects for 2005:

Proj.: .243 GPA / .322 OBP / .119 ISO (38 Runs Created in 102 games).

Not good, but better than the horror show that last year was for the Phillies former prized prospect. I suspect the projection is accurate because, if Pat Burrell’s 2004 season is any indication, Byrd’s ’05 campaign will lay between his career year in ’03 and his ’04 horror show. Assuming that is correct, the Phillies really can’t count on a player with an OBP of just .322 hitting leadoff or in the two slot. When Byrd spells Lofton, expect him to hit seventh or eighth in the lineup.

So what will Lofton do with the job? I suspect he’ll turn in a passable performance in 2005. Not great, but better than what Byrd could do. My main concern about Lofton is the fact that at the age of 38. Lofton doesn’t have the skills he used to and his injuries in the preseason make me question his durability. Still, I think he’ll be a dangerous bat and the Phillies will be more dangerous with him in the lineup than without, though I do think he’ll be a downgrade from Placido Polanco hitting second.

The sole stable factor at the top of the order is Jimmy Rollins. Though many don’t realize it, 2004 was a breakout year for Rollins, who had a .366 OBP after the All-Star break, played very well:

Pre All-Star: .244 GPA / .108 ISO
Post All-Star: .300 GPA / .230 ISO

Rollisn wrestled the leadoff job away from Marlon Byrd because he dramatically lowered his strikeouts:

2001: 108
2002: 103
2003: 113
2004: 73

Rollins finally got into a groove and hit a career high .348 OBP (.025 over his previous career high in 2001) in 2004. The performance was impressive, and enabled Rollins to lay claim to being the top shortstop in the National League, a title he has even more of a claim to now that Edgar Renteria left to Boston.

It pains me to see that Rollins is a free agent next year, because he'll probably fetch $8 or $9 million for 2006. He's a terrific defender and has hit very well recently. I think Rollins is the complete package, an on-base threat with speed (30 steals) and power (14 home runs in 2004), a terrific table-setter for the middle of the lineup.

II. Murderer’s Row:

rf Bobby Abreu
1b Jim Thome
lf Pat Burrell
3b David Bell
2b Chase Utley

People paid a lot of attention to the Cardinals fearsome foursome at the end of the 2004 season when the Cards decision to deal for disgruntled outfielder Larry Walker seemed to gaurantee a World Series triumph. Walker, Rolen, Pujols, Edmonds were tremendous, maybe the best foursome in history. I’d wager that the Phillies fivesome of Abreu, Thome, Burrell, Bell and Utley will produce a lot of runs in 2005. Consider runs created (2005 proj.):

Abreu: 131
Thome: 111
Burrell: 90
Utley: 90
Bell: 74
Total: 496

(The team scored 840 runs in 2004.) That’s a tremendous lineup for any pitcher to face.

We can be sure of Bobby Abreu having a terrific season in 2005. Six of the last seven seasons he’s had a .400 OBP or better. Six of the last seven years he’s also had a slugging percentage of .497 or better. That’s a tremendous performance. Abreu might not be very good defensively, but he might be one of the three or four best bats in the major league. Anyone who hits for power (78 extrabase hits in 2004) while drawing more walks than strikeouts (127 vs. 116) is playing the game of baseball right. If Abreu played with the Dodgers, Yankees or Cardinals he’d be a major super-star. The Phillies are fortunate to have him.

I’ve heard that the Phillies are thinking of moving Pat Burrell into the cleanup slot. I wholeheartedly support the idea. I’m still high on Burrell, despite his inconsistencies. I doubt he’ll play on the level he did during his 2002 campaign, but I think there is a chance he could and having him hit fourth could help him out a lot. Here are Burrell’s last three years:

2002: .376 OBP / .544 SLG / 104 Runs Created / 25 Wins Shares
2003: .309 OBP / .404 SLG / 57 Runs Created / 9 Win Shares
2004: .365 OBP / .455 SLG / 72 Runs Created / 15 Win Shares

2004, despite some problems in June and July, was a good year for Burrell. Once he regains his power stroke he could have a terrific year for the Phillies.

The Phillies might bump Thome to the fifth slot, which I don’t like: I wish Thome hit third, followed by Burrell and Abreu. Thome had a good year, as usual, for the Phillies in 2004. Not a lot bad you can say about a guy who has a .396 OBP and a .581 slugging percentage. While Thome’s numbers have declined somewhat from his Cleveland days, he’s still one of the four or five top sluggers in the game. While Thome may be a defensive liability at first, he more than makes up for it with towering home runs. It is worrisome that he’ll turn 35 in August, but I don’t expect him to slip much in the coming year. He’ll still be a .370+ OBP / 40-45 home runs guy.

David Bell is the weak link in this chain. Oh sure, he had a good season in 2004: his OBP was a career high and ran about fifty points ahead of his career average. His .458 slugging percentage was a career high too, as well as being fifty points over his career average and a .175 point jump on his 2003 season with the Phillies. My beef with Bell is simple: 2004 was his career season and I can’t see him continuing to be the productive bat he was. Bell has a bad back and has battled through a lot of ailments, so I tend to think injuries will catch up to him. The Phillies have said that they intend on spelling Bell and playing Placido Polanco at third. I honestly wouldn’t mind if the Phillies just sat Bell and gave Polanco the job:

Polanco: .345 OBP / .441 SLG
Bell: .365 OBP / .458 SLG

Not much of a difference and Polanco really doesn’t have a reputation as a slugger. Yet Polanco nearly had as many home runs (17) and Bell (18). The Bill James projections for 2005 make the choice clear:

Bell: .325 OBP / .402 SLG / .247 GPA / .147 ISO / 74 Runs Created
Polanco: .335 OBP / .427 SLG / .258 GPA / .132 ISO / 76 Runs Created

Add in the fact that Polanco is a better fielder than Bell.

As for Chase Utley, I’m thrilled to see him finally get his shot. He’ll probably hit seventh, after Bell, but he is a player who could really anchor the Phillies lineup. If the Phillies hold onto Ryan Howard, I can see Utley, Burrell and Howard being the Phillies 3-4-5 hitters in 2007, 2008 and beyond. I think Utley is so good that he’ll be a fixture at the All-Star game as the NL’s second baseman. As I discussed abover Utley is a rare talent: a terrific fielder and a potent bat. I hink he’ll develop his OBP skills this season and really do some damage for the Phillies.

III. Bottom Half & The Bench

c Mike Lieberthal
c Todd Pratt
if Ryan Howard
if Jose Offerman
of Jason Michaels

Like most NL teams the Phillies battery hits eighth and ninth. Mike Lieberthal and Todd Pratt will be spending most of the season hitting eighth when they aren’t squatting in the dirt.

Lieberthal had a rough year playing catcher for the Phillies. Though he played in an impressive 131 games, he hit just .335 OBP, and had 49 Runs Created. Entering his 12th year in the MLB, he’s probably reaching the end of his career with the team. I’m pessimistic about his production for 2005. I suspect he’ll be a .325 OBP, 12-15 HR, 60-65 RBI guy for 2005.

Todd Pratt will probably get decent playing time in 2005, which I’m happy about. The Phillies backup catcher is one of the best and is a dependable bat off the bench. The Bill James handbook predicts him to hit .350 OBP with 32 Runs Created in 71 games for 2005, right in line with what he did last year (.351 OBP, 18 Runs Created in 35 games).

I was disgusted to see that Ryan Howard has asked for a trade. I don’t blame him – he wants to play – but apparently the Phillies have decided that he can only play first base and they won’t be dealing Jim Thome any time soon. Keeping Howard would be foolish, especially if Thome is healthy, if they plan on keeping him on the bench. I’d love to see the team try to convert him into a third baseman or a corner outfielder, but that isn’t likely. What pains me is that Howard is a tremendous talent and could produce tremendous numbers for this team. Consider some of his 2004 minor league stats:

Reading: 374 AB’s / .386 OBP / .647 SLG / 86 Runs Created
Scranton: 111 AB’s / .362 OBP / .604 SLG / 21 Runs Created
Phillies: 39 AB’s / .333 OBP / .564 SLG / 7 Runs Created

In 131 games in Scranton and Reading he had 131 RBI’s. Not too shabby. Here are the projections for Howard:

.335 Obp / .561 SLG / 34 HR’s / 82 Runs Created / 104 RBI’s

In 112 games. Howard is a future 40 HR / 120 RBI guy. Teams have contacted the Phillies asking about him, so I do expect him to be dealt this season, unless Thome gets hurt or the team tanks and Ed Wade decides to rebuild with a youth movement.

I’d dearly love to see Howard stay. He’s the last real product of the Phillies minor league system ready to play in the majors, and given the team’s often checkered past in race relations, it would be nice to see an African-American star wearing the red pinstripes. He could be a real force, so if the Phillies deal him I hope they are getting three or four top-flight prospects in return. In the here and now he’ll be a deadly bat off the bench and a terrific sub for Thome should the injury bug bite.

I was surprised to see the Phillies sign Jose Offerman to a contract, but pleased. Offerman is near the end of his career and will be the Phillies designated pinch hitter extraordinaire. Last year Offerman had a .581 OBP in 31 plate appearances as a pinch hitter (11 for 24 with 7 walks), a tremendous performance. I think he’ll do well in the role.

Jasn Michaels got a lot of playing time in 2004 due to injuries and poor play from Phillies outfielders. Michaels played 95 games in the Phillies outfield and came off the bench to pinch hit another 39 times. He’s a dependable bat (.364 OBP in 2004) and is a decent glove in the outfield, so he makes a terrific fourth outfielder.

IV. Conclusions

Today, the 2005 season kicks off for the Phillies. I think this team is strong, and far better than generally known by most pundits. Offensively they’ll be strong: any lineup boasting Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome and Pat Burrell is going to score some runs. While I am predicting slides for players like David Bell and Mike Lieberthal, I think that Chase Utley and Pat Burrell will pick up the slack and have great years. I think the Phillies bench (like Ryan Howard, Placido Polanco, Jose Offerman and Todd Pratt ) is strong. I think the Phillies will hit 200+ home runs and score 830-870 runs in 2005. I think they’ll hit strong on the road. This is the most potent lineup in the NL East. The only NL team as good 1-9 are the St. Louis Cardinals … and maybe the San Francisco Giants (though the Rockies will always be impressive statistically thanks to Coors Field).

I think the Phillies are going to play well in 2005. There is little question to me that this team is the strongest the Phillies have had in a decade. The rotation is a little suspect, but vastly improved from last year. The bullpen is deep and staffed with tough, groundball pitchers. The Phillies defense is nothing short of supurb: tough, disciplined, and experienced. I think Charlie Manuel is a terrific choice to lead this team: the Phillies are a veteran club and need someone calm guiding them through the season. I think these guys will probably make a good run at the post-season, but I think their division mates made too many improvements in 2005. I still think the Mets are over-rated, but they are improved from last year’s 71 wins. The Braves are offensively challenged, but are strong in their pitching staff. The Marlins are weak almost nowhere: they have improved on offense and are already strong in pitching and defense. Aside from the Nationals, I don’t think the Phillies are appreciably better than any other team in the division.

But the problem I have with all of the cynicism about the team that surrounds the opening of the season is this: this is a strong team playing in a division full of teams just as good. The Phillies could go anywhere from fourth (as SI predicts) to first (as some at Baseball Prospectus predict). So enjoy this season Phillies fans. This team could be strong and prosper. Let’s give the Phillies the benefit of the doubt and enjoy a fun-filled Opening Day at Citizens Bank.

Give this team a chance, Phillies fans. Enjoy the game today.

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